- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The FBI is mad at its president.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” last Sunday, President Barack Obama said that though it was probably a “mistake” for Hillary Clinton to use a private email server during her time as secretary of state, it “is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.”
His comments have reportedly angered the FBI, which has been investigating Clinton’s server out of its DC headquarters since August to determine whether any classified national-security information was mishandled.
“Injecting politics into what is supposed to be a fact-finding inquiry leaves a foul taste in the F.B.I.’s mouth and makes them fear that no matter what they find, the Justice Department will take the president’s signal and not bring a case,” Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official who retired in 2014, told The New York Times in a story published Friday.
Hosko added that it was inappropriate for the president to “suggest what side of the investigation he is on” during an ongoing investigation.
Though Clinton’s use of a private email address was not illegal and was permitted by State Department rules, the federal government has standards for how servers are built, how they are secured, and how their data is stored.
The FBI is looking into the configuration of the server that Clinton handed over to authorities, as well as whether classified information passed over the remarkably unsecured server.
In August, the intelligence community’s inspector general, Charles McCullough III, told Congress that he discovered two emails sent to Clinton that contained information classified as “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information,” which is the government’s highest levels of classification. Those emails were discovered in a sample of only about 40 emails.
And an email sent to Clinton reportedly contained the name of a CIA asset in Libya.
Agents perceived Obama’s comments as an attempt to influence the outcome of their investigation, according to The Times. And they are annoyed that the president would pass judgment about whether Clinton’s email setup endangered national security when officials have yet to determine whether her server – which contained information retroactively marked top secret and classified – was compromised by foreign adversaries.
“If you know my folks,” FBI Director James Comey said earlier this month, “you know they don’t give a rip about politics.”
The administration has since backed off Obama’s comments: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama was not trying to undermine the investigation after he was grilled by reporters during Tuesday’s daily briefing.
“The president has a healthy respect for the kinds of independent investigations that are conducted by inspectors general and, where necessary, by the FBI,” he said.
- REUTERS/Jason Reed
Clinton’s unusual email system was originally set up by a staffer during Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, replacing a server used by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Facing criticism earlier this year for her use of the server, Clinton handed over about 30,000 work-related emails for the State Department to make public. She also deleted about 31,000 emails she says were personal. She handed over the entire server to the FBI in August.
‘Like inviting spies over to dinner’
Over the past three months, officials examining Clinton’s emails have determined that some of the information that passed through her inbox is now considered either classified or top secret and should not have been discussed over such an unsecured platform.
Indeed, according to a lengthy Reuters investigation, much of the information Clinton sent and received was inherently classified even if it was not marked as such at the time.
And reports that hackers in China, South Korea, Germany, and Russia tried to break into her server have raised questions about the kind of security precautions she took to safeguard this sensitive information.
It is unlikely that the foreign attacks on Clinton’s server were targeted at her directly: The attempts discovered were basic phishing scams disguised as speeding tickets, The Associated Press reported, and rather unsophisticated.
But the malicious emails highlight the fact that Clinton’s server was a target.
And according to a new AP investigation, the way Clinton’s server was connected to the internet – via a Microsoft remote-desktop service that permitted remote-access connections without additional protective measures – made it particularly vulnerable to hackers, which is something experts say her own security experts should have known.
If malicious state actors did know that Clinton was running a private email server and they tried to hack it, “then it’s almost a sure thing that they were successful,” Michael Borohovski, CTO of Tinfoil Security, told Business Insider.
“It’s possible Clinton’s server was breached before she even sent her first email,” Borohovski added. “She probably didn’t mean to put government at risk, but she ended up doing it by running an external mail server that was secured with questionable resources.”
Clinton defended herself on “Meet the Press” earlier this month by saying that she was unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the server, which she left in the hands of experts.
But because Clinton made a conscious decision to bypass the State Department’s server – and the millions of dollars the government has spent to protect it – in favor of her own risky setup, her ignorance of the technological particulars is a poor excuse, Joe Loomis, CEO of CyberSponse, told Business Insider last week.
“The fact that Clinton chose to use her personal email instead of a .gov account shows that she obviously doesn’t understand security,” Loomis said. “What she did is like inviting spies over to dinner – every device connected to the internet is an opportunity for them to collect intelligence.
“This world is full of cyberwarfare, and your computer is a part of that war zone.”
As The Times pointed out, the president and the FBI also sparred in 2012 when he commented on reports that David Petraeus had passed classified information to his mistress.
“I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security,” Obama said at the time.
FBI officials reportedly believe that their recommendation for Petraeus – felony charges and a prison sentence – was overruled by the Justice Department at least in part because Obama had prejudiced the outcome.